Entries Tagged as 'Critical Thinking'

16 Things You Can Do to Learn More English

  1. Take a vacation.  Leaving your familiar area will put you in situations where you might have to use English more to get around.
  2. Take a class.  Any class will do…it doesn’t need to be an English class.
  3. Talk to people around you.  If you’re in a familiar situation on a regular basis (like a class) talk to people you don’t know very well.
  4. Volunteer in the community.
  5. Get to know your neighbors – bond over the loose step that the landlord needs to fix or the noisy couple upstairs.
  6. Gossip.  Read People, Time, or Us and share what you know about Kim, Ashton, and Brad.
  7. Hang out with people outside of your native language group.
  8. Go to the movies.  Renting works too, but be honest with yourself.  If you rent a movie, you’re going to use subtitles, aren’t you? That won’t help you as much.
  9. Teach English.  Share what you learned in English with other people.  They might be interested, and you will be surprised at how much you actually know.
  10. Read books in English.
  11. Select English as the default setting for your electronics.
  12. Make shopping lists in English instead of your native language.
  13. Learn how to play a board game by reading the English instructions.
  14. Have dinner with English speakers regularly.
  15. Talk more.  Seriously.  In every situation (shopping, going out, seeing a movie, waiting for a show to start, standing in line), just make some small talk.
  16. Fall in love with someone who speaks English.


A Thought on Accents

When people say they want to work on their accent, they usually say that people can’t understand them.  A lot of times, what happens is that the characteristics of your native language might seep into your new language so much that it can be difficult for someone who is unfamiliar with those language patterns to understand your spoken words.

If fact, in Spain, the guy at the cafe refused to serve me coffee unless I said the word the way they said it.  (Not cor-TA-doh, it’s cor-TAO).  I think it was because even though I knew the word, my American English characteristics were so strong that what he heard wasn’t me ordering coffee in Spanish- it was a combination of nonsense American-sounding syllables.  If I were to go to England, or watch British soap operas on TV, I might encounter a similar situation.  Even though I speak English, the characteristics of the English I would hear in England would take some getting used to.  For English learners, compound that with new vocabulary and regional colloquialisms, and you have a perfect storm.

Accents can be created by maneuvering your tongue, lip, and jaw.  Accents, however, aren’t just how our mouths are positioned.  They represent, to a large degree, our familial and regional heritage.  People take pride in their accents because they represent where they’re from and who their parents are.  Culture is very important, and should not be overlooked in the discussion of accents.  Some places might be perceived as better than others, which is why some accents might be perceived as superior to others.  There are no superior accents; only perceptions of superior accents exist.

Rather than learning an accent for its perceived superiority, start with these questions:

When you want to speak English well enough to be understood, where will you be?  What are the sound characteristics of the consonants and vowels of that region?  These characteristics vary from place to place.  What about these sounds are difficult for you to say (based on your native language).  If you work on your mouth position for these sounds, will people understand you?

Ultimately, your goal is to communicate to get your needs met.  My tips for starting on accent improvement are in the beginning stages, (1) refrain from using too many regional expressions and (2) keep your word choice and sentence structure simple.


Child’s Play and Spatial Vocabulary Development

This Science Daily article refers to research about how playing with blocks increases spatial development.  Interaction during this play time also increases spatial vocabulary.

The researchers found that when playing with blocks under interactive conditions, children hear the kind of language that helps them think about space, such as “over,” “around” and “through.”

So, is there an age limit to playing with children’s toys in the classroom to learn these prepositions?  Some classes are academic leaning and don’t allow for much play.  However, other groups might be willing to play around, especially if it helps them master prepositions reflecting spatial concepts that are often difficult to explain with words and pictures only.

Listening passively to Mozart

doesn’t make you smarter.  There are, however, things you can do actively to stimulate cognitive development. According to this article, joining a drama class or other social activity, or learning  a musical instrument has more effect on development than simply listening to Mozart.

And as far as I know, listening to Mozart while doing those other things never hurt anyone.

The Passive Voice: 2 things to remember

Two things to remember when using the passive voice are:

  1. The subject in the passive voice doesn’t perform the action in the verb.
  2. The passive voice is not a verb tense.  The past tense is a verb tense, but the passive voice can be written in any verb tense.  I see students confused by the difference between passive voice and the past tense all the time.  They are not the same thing.  Remember that.

If you are troubled by English…

Sometimes when learning a language, or anything new, we can get so wrapped up in pushing ahead and learning more.  More vocabulary, less frequent verb tenses, the exact translation of a phrase, or figuring out why they use this preposition over that!

If this sound like you, take a moment to relax.

As you relax, think about the early days when you were too timid to utter a sentence.  What are some of the things you learned in your first class?  What are some things you and your first English speaking friend talked about?

My point is that you should take some time and revisit the basics.  You might benefit by realizing how far you have come in your studies.  You might build your confidence by mastering those grammar points that seemed so confusing last year.  You might even find that there, within the first pages of your notebook, or on page 6 of your 400-page textbook, is the answer you’ve been looking for all along.

13 Personal Projects Ideas for English Language Students

Personal projects are on the minds of so many students:  they are great for learning new skills, building up a college application, and beating summer boredom.  If you are studying English, here is a list of ideas that will promote your academic and cognitive growth and enhance your English skills simultaneously!

  1. Develop a scrapbook.  A page of programs, movie tickets, notes from friends, and logos that you like…that’s just the beginning of scrapbooking.  If you want the English practice, annotate your entries!
  2. Create a photo journal.  Make sure you take the time to describe your pictures.  Otherwise, it won’t be very good English practice.
  3. Write book reviews or summaries of poetry from English speaking authors.  This will expose you to different styles of writing, new vocabulary, and depending on the poetry, rhyming words to help with your pronunciation!
  4. Write a children’s book in English.  In the process, you could do research by reading some children’s books and learn vocabulary for popular kids’ games.  If you’re an artist, you can also illustrate it!  Double fun!
  5. Make a cookbook!  Translate your favorite hometown recipes into English.  Depending on your location and audience, make sure the measurements are in the right measuring system (English or Metric).
  6. Keep a travel diary in English.
  7. Design a vocabulary collage that tells a story.  RSA Animate has some videos for inspiration.
  8. Keep a Funny Tumblrof jokes you learn in English.  Tumblr is easy to use.  Just remember, it’s public so everyone can see what you post.
  9. Watch movies and write summaries and reviews of them.
  10. Organize a yard sale.  The more extroverted of you can organize a neighborhood yard sale.  This involves talking to people and describing the objects that are for sale.  Go the extra mile and really try to sell something by using persuasive language.
  11. Make hand-written cards and mail them to all of your English speaking friends.  Lots of people type fast and don’t care about their errors on social networks, but when you put ink to paper, you’re committed to what you write.  You will be more likely to take extra steps to make sure you are writing and spelling accurately.
  12. Volunteer. Have you ever heard that it’s better to give than to receive?  Give some of your time.
  13. Develop a campaign to educate the public about an issue.  You could tie this into the yard sale by taking the proceeds from the sale and donating them to your cause.

Whatever you decide to do, I hope it’s a success.  At the very least, these opportunities will increase your exposure to English, and that’s the real goal!



One Language at a Time? Not so…

This summary of a research study by the Journal of Neuroscience suggests that when adults read in their new language, they’re recalling their first language. According to one of the researchers,

“Bilingual individuals retrieve information from their native language even when it’s not necessary, or, even more surprising, when it is counterproductive, since native language information does not help when reading or listening to second-language words,” Thierry said.

Even when it’s counterproductive?  Also of note,

Michael Chee, MBBS, of Duke-NUS Graduate Medical School in Singapore, who was unaffiliated with the study, said the findings show that even though people who learn a second language later in life are discouraged from directly translating words from their native language, they may be doing so anyway.

My takeaway for adult students of English is this: If you’re studying and you know that your brain is using your native language for translating without your conscious permission, try to incorporate study habits that intentionally avoid translation.

Some activities might include:

  • not using a dictionary…use context clues for definitions of new words
  • turn off subtitles while watching movies in English
  • ask a native speaker to explain a word or phrase instead of translating it

Basically, your brain is translating anyway, and it might not be helping you.  You can help yourself by adding some small changes to your study habits to at least cut down the amount of translating you do.

Seth Godin and Romanticizing Education

If we were tasked with teaching our future the same set of shared values and if every student valued them in the same way, then it would be a piece of cake.

But, we’re not.  In the heterogeneous society in which we live, where cultural values vastly differ in even one classroom let alone from district to district, addressing each student’s unique background is essential for their success.  For example, the value of how money is made, shared, and spent might vary from family to family;  the scientific method, while awesome, has the potential to negate some personal religious beliefs.

These contradictions can be confusing for a young person who, developmentally, is still only wired to see the world in terms of right or wrong.  If one student places more value on what is taught in the curriculum (My way is right according to this system), it puts the student who comes from a culture that doesn’t value what is taught in the curriculum at a disadvantage (My way, that my parents have taught me, is wrong according to this system).  Enter identity crisis.

That said, I don’t disagree with Seth Godin’s post titled What’s High School For?  I just think it may be a little romanticized.  It’s certainly necessary to maintain hope and to endeavor towards this business-centric utopia.  But let’s at least begin the endeavor with a list of values that considers the students’ background and interests.  Or, better yet, as a starting point, let’s use the students’ lists.

From Seth’s blog:

  • How to focus intently on a problem until it’s solved.
  • The benefit of postponing short-term satisfaction in exchange for long-term success.
  • How to read critically.
  • The power of being able to lead groups of peers without receiving clear delegated authority.
  • An understanding of the extraordinary power of the scientific method, in just about any situation or endeavor.
  • How to persuasively present ideas in multiple forms, especially in writing and before a group.
  • Project management. Self-management and the management of ideas, projects and people.
  • Personal finance. Understanding the truth about money and debt and leverage.
  • An insatiable desire (and the ability) to learn more. Forever.
  • Most of all, the self-reliance that comes from understanding that relentless hard work can be applied to solve problems worth solving.

Bad Writing

Maybe at one point in time, you have rolled your eyes at something someone said that confirmed your belief at how poorly educated Americans are.  This tumblr, as seen on Andrew Sullivan’s blog, will provide further evidence to support your conviction.

From a linguistic perspective, some of the errors presented in the tumblr are simply from making distinctions between morphemes (Fromkin, Rodman & Hyams, 2003), creating words and phrases that are different from the original, and perhaps well-known, phrase.  One example is, “Two pees in a pot,” instead of “Two peas in a pod”.  The only error here, then, would be the writer’s lack of exposure to the original phrase.

The website is mostly fun because of how English can be manipulated so easily and unknowingly, and in some cases, it’s a little discouraging that these students didn’t proofread or edit before submitting their work.


Fromkin, V., Rodman, R. Hyams, N. (2003). An introduction to language (Seventh edition). Thomson Heinle, Boston.